On incentives, songwriting and activism: Erin McKeown

Cover shotA little while ago Erin McKeown, an American DIY musician, producer and activist, came to Brighton as part of her tour to promote her new album: Manifestra. Erin is a 2011 – 2012 Fellow of Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, which studies alternative independent methods of earning for musicians. Her own research contemplated how to make a creative life a viable profession, so I went down to have a chat about her work, PledgeMusic and making the world a less violent place.


The Jailer


What is the most important thing for you to communicate through your music?

For me, it is a sense of another world besides the one we live in. One that is more poetic, and saturated.

You experiment with a wide variety of musical styles. Are there any genres (besides folk) that you find particularly suited to your particular blend of musical activism?

I have always thought rock was excellent for activism. A great chorus can really change the world. Also, Afrobeat has a wonderful history of activism in its songs. you don’t just need an acoustic guitar!

Manifestra CoverDo you see the current issues surrounding copyright and digital streaming services as a major barrier for a future harmonious relationship between tech and music companies?

As long as someone figures out how to make money again off of musicians, the music biz and tech world will get along fine in the future. It is the day-to-day lives of musicians that I worry more about… How will we continue to make music and be part of our communities if we cannot make a living from being artists?

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Songs from a room: Sofar sounds Brighton

I want to make you aware of Sofar Sounds. The website gives a short, simple description:

“We have created a movement which brings music lovers together in secret living room locations to hear some of the world’s most cutting edge artists. In order to create an intimate and spellbinding atmosphere, we ask that nobody talk during performances.” www.sofarsounds.com

Here’s what it looks like:



A simple concept, but started in the same spirit that made me want to write this blog. It’s a platform for bringing people and music together in a memorable atmosphere, and by doing so, gives the art a way of recapturing its aura and authenticity. Bringing the quiet respect and reverie that accompanies a poetry reading and applying that to an art form that, at times, appears to be floundering in a miserable state, partly of its own creation.

In the good old days, it was easy to make people pay for music. They simply had to; there wasn’t an option. At first, people were able to sell recorded music in the form of written notation, distributing instructions on how to recreate the sound of the piece in your own home, using nothing more than a simple piano and your own voice. If you wanted to hear music, you had to learn how to play it. Or, you could find a friend who knew how, but you’d have to find someone willing, then sit down together and experience it, most likely with even more people involved. It was a group experience, shared interpretations of a composer’s vision. Otherwise, you’d have to go to a scheduled live performance. Music was impossible without investing either time or money, but most likely both.

Even with the arrival of mechanical reproduction, allowing for most of the 20th Century music industry to happen, the music industry held all the cards. Recording equipment was expensive. If a songwriter wanted to record, they had to find someone with enough money to buy and maintain this equipment, and they’d have to work out an arrangement with them to use their facilities in return for a fee, or a share in the profits of the music. The people who owned the equipment could make as many recordings as they liked, transforming various materials into objects that would recreate a musical performance in people’s homes. Whatever the specifics of the artist/manager/record company relationship, the audiences couldn’t get their mitts on the music of their favourite artist without going through the men who controlled the recording equipment.

Now though, we’re here. Digital reproduction allows any of us to make endless free, perfect copies of any music we own. We can call thousands of songs within a few moments of deciding we’d like to hear something, and all this does something to the power music can have to affect us. With fewer people respecting music as art, and with so many subcultures through the last century co-opted by mainstream companies and used in advertising, songs which may have once poignantly expressed a social injustice or beautiful captured a moment in time are shackled to this week’s special at Burger King or last month’s car insurance deals.


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Live: The New Union at The Green Door Store, 21st June

Brighton based four piece, The New Union, are putting on their first headline show.

It’ll be at The Green Door Store, on the 21st June, with support from Wildcat Strike and Demob Happy.

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Radiohead announce their 1st UK dates in four years

By Kollision [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

So Radiohead are going on tour, which has me incredibly excited. What really worries me though, is the mental image of myself anxiously refreshing a ticketmaster  page trying to get tickets, whilst somewhere in London an entire office of Viagogo staff armed with a book of credit cards each are doing the same.

To calm the nerves of fans, a spokesperson for Radiohead has said: “In an attempt to prevent secondary ticketing for Radiohead shows the group has put a number of measures in place for ticket buyers. These include implementing a paperless ticketing system, limiting the number of tickets per transaction, disallowing name changes after purchase, and requiring photo ID to gain entry to the shows. For more detailed information on these ticket restrictions go to Radiohead.com/tourdates

The UK dates appear to be one show in Manchester, and a couple at the O2, although we can always pray to the gods of rock for some more.

Adele: “5 years? More like 5 days!”

Following the major surgery undergone by Adele, several news outlets have been reporting the sad and fortunately false news that the beloved singer has decided to take 5 years off from her music. Well, fear not, fans of the jewel in England’s pop crown shouldn’t have long to wait for her follow up to the frankly marvelous ‘21’.

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Rihanna may help to bring balance to the Pop style universe

Rihanna in her Last Girl on Earth Tour
Image via Wikipedia

Rihanna talking about her style in an interview with Ryan Seacrest on his US radio show –

“I just wanted to go right back to something simple and something flexible, something a little more natural. It’s more about the music.”

Rihanna has said she’s planning to tone down her provocative image and that’s a step in the right direction I feel. Not that there’s anything wrong with her baring a bit of flesh, she’s entitled to and it seems to help her sell records, it’s just refreshing to hear her saying she might start looking “a little more natural” and that she’s interested in something “more about the music.” I’m just hoping she isn’t lying or that she’s just decided to wear jeggings instead of hot pants occasionally…

The singer Rihanna in AMA'S red carpet
Image via Wikipedia

From what I see of pop stars, the top pop princesses suffer from a distinct lack of clothes that you could wear to your Nan’s for Sunday lunch. This is ok…it’d just be nice to see one of the others follow Rihanna’s example and ease up the balance. The key phrase in the quote above was “something a little more natural.” I’m not saying she has to always dress like she’s going to her Nan’s, just maybe wear something that wasn’t designed to show anything her management think she’ll get away with.

I propose we divide the Pop Princesses into two distinct groups. Have some of them dressed like they do now, converting as much of their body into their image as they can to boost sales, but leave the rest to start concentrating on making great music as their main focus. Just because you’re selling yourself as a musician, doesn’t mean you’re ugly. Beyoncé has probably the best opportunity to change her style at the moment without losing face, what with being pregnant and all, and she might even carry it on afterwards if she likes it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we turned round in thirty years, and the best way to get noticed in the music industry was to make great music and dressing up like a slapper was left to Barbie?

UPDATE 18/1/2012

Well this is embarrassing. Seems like it was all lies. In the time since I wrote this, she’s been caught topless in a field and there doesn’t seem to have been any toning down of her image at all.

This means nothings changed, which isn’t exactly bad, it’s just not the leap forward in feminine identity within mainstream pop I was gunning for in the article…and no change is a bit boring to write about to be honest.


CMU Email 16/11/11

Listen to the Interview

Gonzo Jazz

What follows is a VERY subjective account of my first visit to Ronnie Scott’s. It is more of an attempt on my part to incorporate something of a gonzo style of journalism into what I’ve done so far on this blog (and has been written primarily for entertainment purposes) then it is a real review of the evening I had.

London - Day 6 Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club
Image by timjeby via Flickr

It was my first time outside a real jazz venue and it was almost perfect. I wasn’t sure where I should head until I spotted the cool, unassuming sign outside the door, with just the name in red and a crude saxophone drawn in neon protruding from the darkness of the brickwork. There is undeniably something different about the atmosphere in Soho at night. Something authentic; a barely perceptible taste in the air. The lights have been specifically positioned to 

draw your eye to parts of the building, allowing the black against red light contrast to enjoy the fullest effect on passers-by. To me, it symbolised a link to the history of music, a chance to experience something close to the jazz clubs of yester-year and gain a better understanding of the music as a result.

“Have you got a reservation?” From a man holding flyers on the front steps. I hadn’t noticed him, or maybe I’d ignored him whilst I was taking in the impressive exterior. I nodded, and, stepping under the dignified name above the door, we strolled past the illuminated upcoming events posters and double glass doors and took our first steps inside Ronnie Scott’s.

Stretching out ahead was a corridor furnished with décor that implores you to think posh and luxurious, but which clearly has an ulterior motive: to last as long as practically possible under the weight of generations of music junkies. It sloped gently upwards, leading to a group of women looking intently at a clipboard. I guessed they were probably the people we needed to see first, so I ignored the knot of excitement and the rush of something like nerves which travelled up my spine and stretched itself out across the back of my brain. My head was swimming with excitement, but I managed to confidently approach them for verification that our places had been paid for in advance, and our seats were saved.

The rush of nerves had first hit me on the tube, and they took me completely by surprise. My best guess at where they’d come from was my own desperate need for the building to be perfect, to be the all-embracing Cathedral to London jazz that I’d always imagined it as. At the time, my head was spinning with imaginary jazz establishments. I had a rough idea about what the stage looked like, but it was what the place felt like which really mattered to me. I wanted to immerse myself in a thick mire of jazz history, sinking into a warm comfortable bath designed to compliment the free expression on stage. I knew that I could soon leave the brightly lit steel cylinder, which could have represented man’s industrial creations, for a world constructed around entertainment, music and listening to the free expression of an individual amongst a group.

The reality that greeted me as I followed our usher into the club was slightly different to what I’d imagined. The rush I’d had on the way to the venue ebbed away, leaving vague curiosity and wonder in it’s place. The furnishing looked exactly as I’d imagined and more, from the generally traditional feel of the auditorium and bar, to the tasteful touches of the modern where appropriate. Every single nuance was controlled and managed to give just the right amount of light, just the right ambience. The seats were mostly in dark, with a small orange lamp between two customers, encouraging you to remain silent. Most striking however were the tables in front of the stage, surrounded by a chest-high border made of smooth polished metal. It created a mythical separation, putting those willing to pay a little extra into a space of their own, as though they wanted to imagine they were at a private performance.

Despite the effort and control that had gone into every other aspect of the building’s luminescence, the monitors on the tills continued to glare out at you once the lights were turned down and the show began. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but they seemed to reflect an uncanny niggling feeling at the back of my head. There was something like a dawning realisation occurring whilst the rest of me was pre-occupied with the staggering display of music on stage.

The place had a slightly different atmosphere in the flesh to the romantic jazz clubs of my imagination. There was something about the way everything was set up. The impeccably arranged lighting, the service, the price of drinks and the harsh light from the tills created the impression that this wasn’t about the worship of jazz or music, it had much more of a focus on the paying audience. We had pockets deep enough to pay the entry fee and take advantage of the excellent hospitality. It was a church to jazz lovers, and how lucrative their passion had become for those who knew what they liked. It started to look less like we had been shown to our seats, and more like we had willingly hooked our wallets up to an automatic milking machine and been shown to our allocated shed.